What is the Social Function of Religion?



Religion, it seems, entails much more than its manifest or obvious function (from the devotee’s perspective this would generally be spiritual liberation); there is also the latent or hidden function that concerns the overall social purpose of religion (what religion accomplishes for society to work properly.) In evaluating the latent function religion is placed in a social context and understood, at least in part, as a human construct. Thus, instead of thinking of religion in theological terms, religion is viewed in a more human light. The social function of religion is generally a hot topic in religious studies and so I thought it important to dedicate a chapter to it. Here we will explore the ideas of four prominent sociologists of religion, Simmel, Wilson, Weber, Juergensmeyer, to better comprehend the functionalist stance. A summary of their main text(s) will be given and when appropriate criticism offered.


Georg Simmel:

According to Georg Simmel, a sociologist of religion from the continental German tradition, humans are by nature religious. The three components that draw forth humans' religious spirit are: nature, fate and society. Religious feelings of piety, humility and grandeur are invoked as one experiences the powerful forces of the natural world. Also, religiosity is aroused when one embarks on an existential quest for the meaning of life, as one wonders if free will or determinism plays the lead role. The greatest source of religion, however, comes from social relations. Living in a community with others requires a certain cohesiveness that only religion offers.

In Sociology of Religion Simmel's main thesis is that religion allows for society to function properly. Without religion, says Simmel, society would not exist, since religion serves as the integrative source for it. His concern is not with the ontological status of religion but the function of religion for social groups. One of the most important roles for religion in society is the construction of religious laws, which, if followed, guarantee some sense of order to the world. For instance, prohibitions like not committing adultery or not killing your neighbor are classified as divine commandments. The proper relations of humans becomes absolutized and projected to the realm of the transcendental, and, consequently, given great importance. Thus, by correlating social obligations with religious ones social norms are regulated.

Aside from implementing restrictive sanctions, religion has the power to create a strong sense of group cohesiveness. Religious rituals such as pilgrimages and festivals represent times of peace when the social hierarchies that separate individuals are lifted. Strong unity is also a product of religious communities, like monasteries, where specific duties are assigned for a common good. This division of labor ensures a dependence on each other and a realization of the importance of the part working for the whole. Under such religious auspices, an innate "love impulse," asserts Simmel, surfaces. Acts of altruism in the name of religion and feelings of brotherhood promote a tightly knit society. In Christianity, this transcendental unity is sometimes referred to as the "Body of Christ" or "The City of God," a state of existence absent of conflict and competition.

An outgrowth of the love for fellow humans is love for a projected super-structure--a god. The concept of god plays an essential role in the formation of society. The deity for the group is the ideal projection of the social forces at play. In other words, god personifies the necessary ingredients for group solidarity. It is generally viewed as a loving, just being who wants its people to live peacefully together by following a certain set of pre-ordained rules. Faith in a god is often, then, a great benefit to society. When one believes in a god, it may instill a strong sense of confidence in the future. As long as their god exists, so does the community. And knowing that the group will survive in time perhaps gives greater incentive to work hard at constructing a properly functioning society.

Interestingly, Simmel contends that the god of the group reflects the actual social structure of the group. For instance, when the Jewish community was a singular tribe Yahweh was viewed as a father-like figure who took care of his children. However, when the community grew into an association of several tribes the image of the god stepped out of its narrow confines and was transformed into a more powerful king-like figure who ruled the nation. Thus, the god changes according to the group's dynamics, creating new realities for those with different organizational needs. But the social function of the god does not alter: its primary purpose is group unity. Following Simmel's argument, one could ostensibly predict a community's god (whether it is pantheistic, panentheistic, henotheistic, transtheistic, etc.) by simply observing its social organization.

Simmel, unlike theologians, attempts to ground religion in material culture. As a social "scientist," he opts for simpler, more natural explanations to religion by relating it to possible observable data. His objective is not to de-value religion; rather, he points out the necessity of it. Moreover, he argues that the feelings invoked by religion have their own depth and sincerity, portraying the inner activity of the human psyche.

There are a few problems with Simmel's analysis, however, that should be pointed out. First of all, his definition of religion relies too much on a Judeo-Christian understanding. He implies that religion must have two essential components: 1) belief in a god; and 2) a inner-worldly attitude, that is, a drive to promote a prosperous earthly community. Because of his narrow definition, he claims that Buddhism, which has no godhead and does not focus on building strong social ties, is not a religion but a "philosophy." (In Buddhism salvation is possible through the individual's own efforts.) But according to Ninian Smart's more inclusive description of religion, Buddhism indeed can be classified as a religious tradition. Smart defines religion as a "seven-dimensional organism" consisting of: rituals, myths, doctrines, ethics, social institutions, religious material, and religious experiences. This definition of religion seems to correct for any possible Judeo-Christian bias.

Another criticism of Simmel might be his insistence on the social disposition of human beings. In philosophy there has been a long going debate over the nature of humans. John Locke, for instance, argues that humans are basically good creatures, while Thomas Hobbes posits that they are innately a-social. Simmel's argument rests on Locke's position but he offers no evidence at all to support this. His "love impulse" idea may just as easily be replaced with "narcissistic drive," and this would throw his whole theory off.

Moreover, Simmel seems to confuse his role as a social scientist with that of a mystic when he says that true salvation is self-realization, awareness of one's inner most being. Scholars, however, must constantly be on the guard to be objective and impartial and refrain from making such statements in their work.

And, finally, while Simmel tries to ground religion in the world, he really fails to do this because he offers no ethnographic data; rather, he simply "theorizes" about the role in religion. Certainly, hypotheses may precede data collecting, but to adequately validate a claim necessary research must be cited. Specifically, it would be fascinating to see how the image of a god reflects each group's social organization.

Overall, though, Georg Simmel's work deserves a great deal of recognition. His insistence that religion has sociological roots was groundbreaking during the late nineteenth century and has led the way for other sociologists in this area.


Bryan Wilson:

In Religion in Sociological Perspective, Bryan Wilson takes a strong functionalist stance. His concern is not with the ontology of religion but its social benefits. The manifest, or obvious, function of religion to humans is that it gives a sense of hope, an idea of salvation of some kind. However, religion's latent, or hidden, function, claims Wilson, serves an even greater purpose--social cohesion. In a similar vein with Durkheim, Wilson sees religion as indispensable for a properly functioning society. In a traditional religious society an exhortation to "do the will of God" promotes civic virtue and obligation. While not everyone abides by the moral rules, sanctions recognized by society help to defer actions detrimental to the group. Thus, religion provides the prescriptive moral norms of society; it creates a motive to do good and thus maintains social control.

Besides establishing the overarching values of society religion provides legitimacy to social and political activities, like wars, by declaring them in the "name of God." Religion also creates social unity by giving one a sense of identity as being a part of a group with shared ideas and a sacred history. Usually a myth of origins defining a people's special relations with God is perpetuated. Additionally, religion, through art, dance, and ritual, provides emotional expression essential to human beings. And, finally, as Charles Glock argues, religion helps to console the deprived and hence prevent social rebellion.

However, in the contemporary Western world, traditional religion has become a mere shadow, a result of both pluralism and secularism. Pluralism has played a decisive role in lessening traditional religion by presenting alternative ideologies and promoting choice (the "heretical imperative). For many this means choosing no religious affiliation or at least reducing absolute truths to relativistic claims. Secularism also tremendously affects the impact of traditional religion in society; instead of turning to supernatural help, humans look to the service of science and technology. Yet, without religion playing its essential role, Wilson asserts, society as we know it may become unlivable, devoid of goodwill, community and trust. In place of altruism, hedonism and permissive laissez-faire morality may be the norm. Several signs point to a societal breakdown, argues Wilson; for instance, he notes the rise of violence in the cities, high suicide and divorce rates, a loss of a sense of community and interpersonal care, disrespect for the elderly, the heavy use of pornography, and an increase in addictions to drugs and gambling. This moral deterioration can clearly be blamed, Wilson says, on the decline of traditional religion.

Wilson admittedly states that his analysis of religion applies specifically to the West and not so much to the East. In Eastern traditions diversity is built into the religious system, allowing for greater appreciation for alternative morals, beliefs and rituals. There is not one Godhead and one set of moral codes but many. Therefore, Wilson argues that in the East a societal breakdown may be avoided altogether since social control is somewhat muted there. However, Wilson claims that this is not the case in the West. Here one finds an exclusive, non-tolerant tradition--Judeo-Christianity--that demands allegiance to an all-powerful God who imposes a rigid set of morals. Humans by nature are deemed sinful and so need rules to help control them. In the Western context, religion plays such a central role in establishing social control that with religion's decline social degeneration is inevitable.

Thus, according to Wilson, without traditional religion in Western society the future looks extremely grim. In fact, he goes as far as to say that without it Western society cannot be fully humane. Of course, there are some benefits to a rationalized society, namely more tolerance and impartiality, but, remarks Wilson, the losses clearly outweigh the gains.

Other agencies, like guild organizations, may attempt to fulfill the role of religion in society, but they do not adequately induce religious sentiment of commitment and concern for others. Wilson argues that the only answer is to revive religion. An attempt to do this has occurred in the West with the rise of new religious movements, which generally offer the benefits of a tightly knit moral community. However, new religious movements in the West are less concerned with transforming wider society and instead focus their energies on their own group. Hence, the impact of these small, exclusive sects is at best marginal. And Wilson points out that new religious movements, which originally manifest in reaction against secularization, inevitably become more secularized as they attempt to legitimize their position in the rational world. What starts out as an anti-modernist group often becomes later a vehicle of secularization itself.

Certainly, Wilson's functionalist stance is fairly reasonable; there are many social benefits from religion, such as creating a sense of social bonding. But upon closer examination of his analysis several problems become apparent. First of all, Wilson seems to ignore contradictory evidence that suggests interpersonal relations in the modern Western world have in many ways improved. Pluralism has exposed people to a variety of alternative cultures and perspectives and the final result may be less prejudice. Tolerance and impartiality are no small feats. Wilson seems to downplay these too much.

Secondly, reviewing history one sees that order was often missing from the social fabric and religion in many cases contributed to this. For instance, in Christianity, considered the moral backbone of the West, numerous decapitations and burnings of so-called heretics were condoned in the name of faith. Indeed, the world appears to have come along way from the savageries of witch-hunts. Wilson apparently forgets this and assume that earlier times were like the "Donna Reed days" when "gosh-darn-it" was the extent of profanity.

Another problem with Wilson is his apparent anti-science stance. This seems ironic since he introduces his book claiming to follow the scientific method. Yet, in this same piece, he condemns science as de-mystifying and alienating, contributing to the downfall of present day society. However, Wilson fails to realize that science does not necessarily destroy mystery but in many cases reveals it. As Albert Einstein states, "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science."[From the WORLD AS I SEE IT, 1934] Also, Wilson's claim that science renders the individual in a hopeless state of alienation can be called into question. On the contrary, science can actually induce a feeling of connectedness with nature and the world. Overall, scientific knowledge has taken us quite far, not just into a world of cold machines, but into a world where diseases can be cured and pain stopped. Looking at the cup half empty here, as Wilson does, is perhaps the wrong approach.

Moreover, Wilson's suggestion to return to traditional thinking is ridiculous in the midst of scientific discoveries. Does he still want us to believe that Adam and Eve were historical beings existing 10,000 years ago all for the sake of social cohesion? The mythological world traditional religion endorsed has lost credibility, and a new sacred history, one built on scientific evidence, has won the consensus. Will this new orientation lead to the downfall of the Western world? Of course, from the Judeo-Christian perspective (and Wilson's as well) the answer is yes, since human nature is seen as sinful and in need of very strict moral laws by a binding religious system to keep it in line. However, one can certainly challenge this, as do secular humanists like Paul Kurtz, and describe humans as innately good requiring no religious incentive to be moral. In fact, without traditional religion society may be better off, because human worth will be perhaps more greatly valued.

But how then does one explain the increase in violence witnessed today? Perhaps it is a typical pattern of disillusionment and acted-out frustration that occurs whenever society is experiencing a transition from one paradigm to another--in this case from traditional religion to secularism. In time, when the new worldview (or, if you will, "religion," using Paul Tillich's definition of it) eventually takes hold, tensions are lessened and society re-bonded under a new vision. One can point to several examples in history that indicate this pattern: for instance, there was much documented violence during the rise of Islam and even the beginnings of the Reformation.

Thus, Wilson's claim that today's decline in traditional religion has led to an unprecedented deterioration of society is questionable. If instead there is a cyclical process of decline and rebirth occurring in society throughout history, then the future may not be as forbidding as Wilson predicts. Religion, defined here as one's "ultimate concern," may still fulfill its role creating social cohesion, but perhaps in a new form--secularism.


Max Weber:

In his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argues that religious ideology can in itself act as an instrument for social change. This is naturally in contrast with Karl Marx who felt that social position determines ideology. Weber, while not necessarily disputing Marx's point, contends that ideas can affect the course of how people interact. And to buttress this point Weber looks to religion and how religious ideas dovetail with other social productions into altering human beings' overall socio-economic stance.

In a magnificent case study Weber examines how Protestantism played a major role in initiating modern capitalism. He began his study when he noticed that business leaders and owners of capital were predominately Protestant and thus subscribed to a particular ethos which Weber realized was essential for capitalism.

To begin with, Protestantism rejected the outer worldly asceticism of the Catholic Church and instead embraced a different approach to the world--inner worldly asceticism. One was not to shriek one's duties in the world retiring to monastic servitude as the Catholics suggested, but actively engage in the world dedicating all work to the glory of God.

According to Weber, inner worldly asceticism is a very powerful force for social change and greatly contributed to the spirit of capitalism which swept through Europe and North America. This form of asceticism is captured most consistently in Calvinism, which clearly advanced the concept of a divine "calling"--a duty to glorify God through hard work and self-control. Unlike traditional Catholicism, God was not to be found simply in a religious retreat but in all areas on life, including the market place.

For the first time in Christianity the pursuit of wealth was welcomed and sanctified. Profit itself was seen as a sign of God's stewardship. Yet, this pursuit was not untamed. The new ethos entailed not only industry (making money) but sober-mind and frugality (investing one's money back into the business itself). Hence, the capitalists generally did not live a life of luxury, believing that the greatest return was for those who postpone their enjoyment.

This is clearly an ascetic view, since it involves a very defined sense of the future, while thinking of the present as something temporary and also as something to transcend. If this sense of time, this sense of present asceticism is absent, then it is more difficult for an economic system like capitalism to develop. Why? Because it takes a certain kind of approach to the world in order to understand what Benjamin Franklin meant when he said a "penny saved is a penny earned." The idea of saving is essentially present moment denying; yet, why deny this present moment if it is all that there is? But, to Weber's credit, he saw that to a Protestant there is in fact more to life than the present moment--there is, to be certain, a future--and, as Christianity posits, a glorious future at that.

As for the poor laborers themselves, they were viewed as highly pleasing to God if they remained faithful workers even at low wages. This resulted in an essential element of capitalism--legalized exploitation. Predictably, few workers rebelled since any attitude or outlook that might undermine the system was viewed as extremely sinful.

All things considered, little wonder, therefore, that capitalism thrives in those countries where a Protestant "ethic" flourishes. It is this philosophical underpinning, so to say, which contributes to the success of this world-postponing system. Marx may have been correct in identifying how economic factors determine ideology, but Weber clearly demonstrates that this is only part of the picture. As we see, religious influences have their own force, creating conditions favorable to a new economic civilization.

Weber's study is one of only a handful of sociological studies that can be termed a classic. It is a classic precisely because it has done what most sociological studies have not: passed the test of time and still been useful some eight decades after its initial publication. What makes the study so useful is that it combines theory with an empirical case. In other words, it does what every good scientific endeavor should: explain disparate data by a simpler theory, while at the same time being open to verification or to falsification. As such, it serves as a model of the interactionist approach (suggesting a mutual interaction between ideas and behavior) for many future sociological studies.


Mark Juergensmeyer:

Mark Juergensmeyer in Religion as Social Vision agrees with Weber that one of the more successful ways to promote social change is through religious movements. Oppressed groups who want to restructure society may turn to religion as a vehicle for social improvement, since, unlike purely political movements, religious ones seem to have a stronger sense of cohesion--a feeling of communitas--which gives strength to their fight. A new social vision, described as a religious utopia, becomes the group's foci. In a case study, Juergensmeyer investigates the Untouchables of India to demonstrate how such a "political religion" works.

The Untouchables of India face intense discrimination, endorsed by the Hindu religion itself. According to the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, the caste system was divinely ordained and the Untouchables are at the bottom of it. They are ranked so low in society they are sometimes referred to as Outcastes--outside of the four varnas or castes. While living simple lives as street sweepers, leather workers, beggars and landless laborers, the Untouchables, viewed as impure, face tremendous oppression. Not only are they forbidden to eat with the other higher castes, there are strict rules against mingling with them as well. In the Hindu code of ethics, The Laws of Manu, it explains that there is no opportunity to improve one's position since one's caste is hereditary (based on the laws of karma). It continues to add that one should gracefully accept one's social position and hope for a higher caste rank in the next life.

There have been some attempts in the twentieth century, however, to change the plight of the Untouchables. For instance, Gandhi tried to raise the status of the Untouchables by referring to them as "Harijan," translated as the "children of God," and by incorporating them as equals into the Hindu fold. Yet, many Untouchables resented Gandhi's effort, considering it implicitly patronizing. Rather than identify with the Hindus, their oppressors, a large number of Untouchables sought separation from them. New religious movements sprang up in the early 1900's with this in mind.

Since their oppression stems from Hindu religious concepts, by cleverly embracing a religion of their own the Untouchables turned Hinduism on its head and offered alternative interpretations and a new social vision. In other words, they fought religion with religion. The Untouchables sometimes even utilized traditional Hindu religious symbols, albeit with a new twist, as a way to couch political and social ambitions in a familiar religious language and thus to challenge normative order.

The Ad Dharm movement, founded by Mangoo Ram in the 1920's, is a classic example of an "Untouchable religion." Its goal was liberation for the Untouchables and it campaigned for this through religious mythology. Religious myths, such as a myth of divine origin as "a special people of God" who have somehow fallen from their esteemed position at the hands of oppressors, are evoked to give the group identity and instill a sense of purpose--a drive to regain a lost status. Adherents claimed that their religion existed from time immemorial and that they were the original people of India. When Aryans (Indo-Europeans) invaded India, asserted the Ad Dharm leaders, they implemented the caste system to justify subjugating the indigenous people. According to Mangoo Ram, the objective of the Ad Dharm was to call the non-Aryan people back to their heritage. While the Aryan invasion is historically grounded, the Ad Dharm movement certainly flavored the account. In an attempt to establish their superiority over the upper classes, the Untouchables identified with the original people of India some 4,500 years ago; however, an uninterrupted ancestral link is uncertain.

The Ad Dharm tradition was not looking for equality in the Hindu world but mainly separation from it. It rejected the Arya Samaj movement ("Society of Aryans"), which sought to establish a new Hinduism for the middle class and to accept as equal women and the lower classes; instead, the Untouchables fought for their own sense of cultural identity.

Signs of a separate quam (religious community) became visible under the leadership of Mangoo Ram. To set themselves apart from other religions, the Untouchables developed their own greeting. They also, in rebellion, wore the color red, sacred in Hinduism and usually prohibited for the Untouchables. As solidarity grew, political-religious rallies become even more vibrant. Heros, usually lower caste gurus like Ravi Das, were venerated at the meetings. Moreover, as with most religious traditions, the Ad Dharm had its own religious writings, which highlighted moral requirements and presented humanitarian objectives clothed in religious ideology.

Officially, the Ad Dharm made its mark as a distinct group during the 1931 census. Their high numbers posed a serious threat to other religious groups who were competing for legislative seats and representation. Numbers translated as electorial power, and this bargaining leverage could be their ticket out of bondage. While many Untouchables feared identification with the Ad Dharm because of local harassment and widespread intimidation, the movement still pulled in a significant percentage. Mangoo Ram claimed this as their first real victory in the socio-political arena.

What helped their cause was the positive relationship the Ad Dharm had with the ruling British government. The government had a vested interest in promoting the Ad Dharm, since this movement was not a Hindu or Sikh anti-British nationalistic organization. If the huge number of Untouchables in India were diverted from joining the anti-British nationalist cause and instead encouraged to have their own movement the British government would certainly feel less threatened. On the other side, the motivation of the Ad Dharm to support the British government is clear: it in turn would receive government benefits such as education for children and independence from the upper classes, such as recognition as a distinct group from the Hindus in the 1931 census. The relationship was, therefore, a symbiotic one. With the British support, the Ad Dharm became a political force.

However, the Ad Dharm took a turn for the worst in the late 1930's when it became too political and lost its religious vision. With its gained electorial strength, politics seemed to become its sole emphasis. Leaders were no longer religious figures fighting for the freedom of the downtrodden, but politicians with personal ambitions and secular interests. They were now "outsiders" who had less concern at the local level and were alienated from their constituency. Hence, when the Ad Dharm abandoned religion for politics it lost its unifying symbols and thus its strength. Three decades went by before the Ad Dharm movement realized its mistake. Yet, in the 1970's Mangu Ram Jaspal advocated a "new" Ad Dharm--a religious one--which is growing significantly today.

Juergensmeyer's investigation of the Untouchables of India clearly illustrates how religion can serve as a source for social improvement. In many ways his analysis challenges Karl Marx's ideas of religion. According to Marx, religion, like a numbing "opium," dulls the pain of oppression and inhibits social rebellion by offering false hopes of a heavenly future (or, in the case of India, a higher caste position). Marx's theory may indeed explain the persistence of the caste system in India through the millennia but in the last one hundred years we witness a turn of events: an onset of new religious movements whose objective is to liberate the lower classes. Thus, instead of perpetuating oppression, religion can possibly serve to emancipate.

Interestingly, when Marxists entered India with ideals of equality and plans to recruit, they were disappointed (and somewhat embarrassed) when the Untouchables showed no interest in their secular philosophy. Certainly, the Outcastes were ripe for recruitment but they needed religion as the instrument for social change. Religion supplied necessary ingredients such as hope for the future and a sense of importance.